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The Future of Medicine

We really should go to school to learn how to take care of our bodies—learn how to feed them, how to nurture them, what their basic requirements are.

an interview with Mark Hyman, MD, by Eva Herriott

Mark Hyman, editor of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, has been working for decades with doctors, patients, politicians, educators, and others to change the face of medicine. In this interview, he discusses the emerging trends in our understanding of health and how to create it, and how these changes are affecting the field of medicine.

Eva Herriott Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing appreciation of the value of alternative approaches to health and healing. What do you consider the most important of these developments?

Mark Hyman Medicine is in the midst of a dramatic convergence of modern science and ancient healing systems based on a new understanding of the basic biological laws of nature. Ancient traditions of wisdom, including the yogic tradition, have always looked at the world holistically. Mind and body are viewed as a whole system in which everything works together.

Most disciplines of modern science have caught up with this view. The shift has been to a new architecture of thinking—systems thinking, or inquiring into the patterns, relationships, and connections that tie together diverse phenomenon. Medicine, in contrast, is still a very fragmented science. It has been divided into specialties that look at the body as separate parts. Luckily, this is changing. For the first time in history, we are able to plunge the depths of biological mysteries and understand the body from a systems point of view, and apply that understanding to medicine and to human functioning. This exciting new branch of medicine is called functional medicine.

EH Does functional medicine approach the treatment of disease in a different way than traditional allopathic, or Western, medicine?

MH Yes, rather than just focusing on diseases, functional medicine focuses on understanding the intricate connections and relationships between everything. It perceives the same symptoms and diseases but through an entirely new set of perceptual lenses. It uses new navigational and therapeutic tools to assess and treat the imbalances that underlie all chronic illness.

EH Could you give an example of how this works in practice?

MH For example, one man came to see me who had a whole list of different diseases. He had colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease; he had asthma, which is inflammation of the lungs; he had alopecia, which is an inflammation of the hair follicles that causes hair loss all over the body; he had high blood pressure, which we now know is an inflammatory disease; and he also had weight around the middle, which is a big source of inflammation in the body.

In essence, he had five different inflammatory problems. He had seen numerous specialists (a dermatologist, a pulmonologist, an internist, a gastroenterologist), and he was on the best medication for each disease. But nobody had said, "What is the cause of all these inflammatory diseases? Is it just a coincidence that you have all these different types of inflammation? What are the common causes of inflammation and how do we remove them? And then, how do we restore normal immune functioning?" Nobody had asked these types of questions.

This particular client had an allergy to gluten, also known as celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disease that affects one percent of the population. But it’s a nutritional factor most doctors ignore, because they don’t think that food has anything to do with illness. Once we got him off gluten, all the inflammatory problems resolved, he got off his 15 medications, lost 25 pounds, his asthma and colitis went away, and his hair grew back.

The essential and revolutionary concept of functional medicine is that there are some basic imbalances at the root of all bodily dysfunctions (what we call symptoms or disease). Conventional medicine confuses the symptom or disease with the name we give to that problem—but depression doesn’t cause depression, asthma doesn’t cause asthma, heart disease doesn’t cause heart disease. Those are only the names of the problems. Diseases and symptoms are simply the outward manifestations of disturbed patterns of communication between cells and molecules and genes. Functional medicine focuses on addressing these core imbalanced patterns. The factors that promote illness and disturbed function are removed, and therapies are introduced that focus on improving function—immune function, detoxification abilities, hormone and neurotransmitter balance, or structural integrity of the body and the cells. This engages the natural healing response of the body and leads to much better results with less intervention and fewer side effects.

EH You have said that for the first time we have the opportunity to not just treat disease but to create health. Could you talk a bit about that?

MH Yes, that is the other side of the coin in functional medicine. Rather than ask "How do I treat this disease or get rid of that symptom?" we ask: "How do I restore optimal function at the core levels in the body?" There are an entirely new set of questions to be asked, such as: Based on her genetics and constitution, what are this person’s unique nutritional and lifestyle needs? What is missing for her body to function properly? What are those factors that are impeding optimal functioning—toxins, allergens, infections, stress, poor diet and lifestyle habits? Often, by simply introducing things that create health, symptoms and diseases disappear without direct treatment.

Often, by simply introducing things that create health, symptoms and diseases disappear without direct treatment.

One client offers a good example. At 45, he had many psychological and behavioral problems: He had trouble focusing and concentrating; he suffered from anxiety; he couldn’t sleep. He was on numerous medications for his symptoms, including a stimulant to concentrate, an antidepressant, an antianxiety pill, and sleep medication, but he was still moody and continued to suffer. He also had asthma, 25 pounds of extra belly fat, and his cholesterol and triglycerides were dangerously elevated. His eating habits were erratic, and the quality of his diet was poor. He ate a lot of refined sugars and flours and the wrong kinds of fats.

So I simply offered him the instruction manual for his body. I basically said, "Here is how it works. This is what you need to put in it to feel well and to create health. And here are the things you need to take away that are preventing you from being healthy."

I worked with him to change his poor nutritional habits and to start eating whole foods, such as greens and grains, on a regular basis. His sleep improved, and he started exercising. Within three months he lost 25 pounds, his cholesterol and triglycerides went back to normal (from over 500 to 80), and, as a "side effect," he was able to stop taking all his psychotropic medications. All his mood, attention, and sleep problems were related to that fact that his body was seriously out of balance.

I didn’t treat any particular disease that he had been labeled with, I simply said, "Here is how you create health." Unfortunately, that is something doctors aren’t trained to do.

EH It’s interesting that poor nutrition can cause so many different problems. You once said that the majority of Americans suffer from "overconsumptive malnutrition." What do you mean by that?

MH Most people in this country have such a poor diet that, paradoxically, even though they are overweight, their bodies are actually malnourished. Most Americans eat a lot of empty calories—calories found in foods that contain little or no nutrients. An estimated 93 percent of Americans are deficient in one or more nutrients (vitamins and minerals). And that is only the minimum amount needed to prevent deficiency diseases, not what is optimal, which is a whole different issue.

This is extremely significant because most chronic diseases are actually long-latency nutritional deficiency diseases. They are the result, over time, of inadequate nutrition. Osteoporosis, for example, is related to vitamin D deficiency and perhaps calcium deficiency. Heart disease may be a long-latency deficiency disease related to the amount of folic acid in the diet. The doses that we need to prevent these diseases are actually much higher than the current daily recommended allowances. You need only a few hundred units of vitamin D to not get rickets, but you might need 10,000 units to protect your bones and prevent cancer, heart disease, or autoimmune diseases from developing.

EH How will this growing recognition of the role of lifestyle factors in health and disease shape health care in the future?

MH I think that health care in the future will be more like an educational experience rather than the hierarchical doctor-patient format we currently have.

Think about it this way. We go to driving school to learn how to drive a car. We really should go to school to learn how to take care of our bodies—learn how to feed them, how to nurture them, what their basic requirements are. Kripalu can be a great model for this. A doctor’s consultation in the future might well include a meeting with a whole team of people who evaluate a person’s lifestyle, nutritional status, hormone balance, digestive function, detoxification system, and immune system. Based on this evaluation, a plan would be put together to help a person restore his or her health to an optimum level.

EH What can people do right now to take charge of their own health and well-being?

MH First, people should never abdicate their health care to other people. Not to doctors, and not to alternative practitioners. Each of us needs to be the steward of our own health. Life is a constant educational process, and understanding and caring for our bodies is part of that. Explore different approaches to find what works well for you and what doesn’t. Use the tools that are available on the web and in books to begin to learn what’s going on with your body. Attend workshops. Take wellness vacations. Ask questions. You can use practitioners as the resources they are to help navigate some of the more difficult areas. But be proactive. Even if you are not sick, it’s important to take charge and learn more about the different lifestyle factors that are influencing your health and your overall well-being.


Mark Hyman, MD, is former co-medical director at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires and coauthor of the New York Times best-seller Ultraprevention: The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life. His book Ultrametabolism applies new paradigms to optimal metabolism and weight loss. Visit Dr. Hyman’s website for other self-health resources: www.drhyman.com.

Eva Herriott, PhD, is a health educator and freelance writer who specializes in natural health and related topics.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Spring 2006 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.